XO Sauce is a relative new comer to the Chinese culinary scene, having first been developed in Hong Kong back in the 1980’s. I well remember being mystified as to how to pronounce the name when I first came across it but it turns out that it is named after the ‘XO’, or ‘Extra Old’ designation used to classify Cognac by age. Being able to afford fine Cognac has something of a cachet in certain Asian circles for many years and adopting the two letters as a name was clearly a clever marketing ploy to underscore the expensive delicacies used in the making of this most prestigious of Asian condiments…
XO Sauce can be described a ‘Seafood Sauce’ but that applies to its content rather than its intended use, and the sorts of seafood, and other ingredients, that go in to a given blend tend to be expensive delicacies in and of themselves. Dried Scallops (Conpoy) are invariably included (indeed I would hazard to say that it just isn’t XO Sauce without these), and it would be unusual to find a version that didn’t include Dried Shrimp as well. Some blends will use dried fish in addition to the first two sea products, and other shellfish are occasionally used as well.
A land-based umami component is often supplied by Jinhua Ham (which may be thought of as the Prosciutto of Chinese cuisine), but this is sometimes replaced by Chinese Preserved Sausage. Onion is generally an ingredient (as much for bulk as for flavor, one suspects), and dried chili is usually added in some amount or other. The dried seafood ingredients will supply a certain sweetness to the end product (depending on their quality) but sugar is usually added as well.
The two varieties you see above are both produced by Kei Cheong Foods Ltd. Of Hong Kong and the difference between the two is that the right hand one, packaged in the brown box, describes itself as ‘Abalone XO Sauce’ (presumably, one would immediately assume, because it contains dried Abalone). It doesn’t, actually, but examining both of these types together can help illustrate some of characteristics and qualities of a decent product.
Here is the ‘plain’ XO Sauce. The solid ingredients (listed in order of quantity), include dried scallop, garlic, shallot, dried shrimp, sugar and chili. The primary ingredient is the oil in which the other ingredients are cooked and packed and, in a good quality product, the oil should develop all the best flavors of the other delicacies.
One characteristic of a given XO Sauce is what might be termed its ‘chunkiness’. Some, like this one, will have the solid components clearly distinguishable to a greater or lesser degree, whilst others will present a much smoother, more homogenous texture. This will make only a moderate difference to taste but may determine whether a sauce is better used as an ‘ingredient’ as opposed to, say, a dipping sauce.
Both the sugar and chili are used quite sparingly in this particular product. The front of the box actually uses Chinese characters to specify ‘Mild Heat’, but the paucity of chili pieces is also apparent on visual inspection. Some sauces are quite hot, whilst others not so much and this is true of the sweetness level as well. Personally, I find that many XO Sauces are cloyingly sweet and I always suspect that a lot of sugar is being used to hide poor quality scallop and shrimp.
The ‘Abalone’ version turns out to be not very much different that the plain sort except that it has a bit more chili heat and has a darker appearance from the added chili flakes. As for the abalone itself, it turns out to be ‘Abalone Extract’ and is listed between sugar and chili on the label meaning that it is used sparingly. Indeed, I can detect no abalone flavor here at all and the only other difference (other than chili heat) is that this version has a slightly chewier texture.
Texture, by the way, is one of the characteristics that can dictate the quality, or at least the versatility of a given brand. If a blend contains overly hard or chewy chunks, it may still be useful as an ingredient in a dish requiring further cooking but might be less attractive as a condiment. Individual preferences will vary a bit, of course, but few will want spoon anything with a tough, gritty texture over nice, soft dumplings, for example.
As I have indicated already, XO Sauces are commonly used as a condiment, perhaps as a dipping sauce, or possibly even as a topping for noodles along with such other things as chopped scallions, peanuts or beansprouts. One can also cook with them as well and they are often used to enhance otherwise bland or unexciting items such as steamed green beans, or tofu, for example.
One might think, though, that using an XO Sauce with anything rich or strong tasting might be wasteful overkill but, actually, using it in such counter-intuitive ways can actually enhance even the richest of things as is the case in the above picture. It’s not readily apparent, but the grilled scallops are sitting on a bed of an XO Sauce and the result was absolutely delicious. The XO Sauce, by the way, was not a commercial product but was rather made by the chef at the Claddagh House in Charlottetown where I was served this terrific dish.
For many home-cooks, XO Sauce is primarily used as a flavoring addition for fried rice. This is actually a great way to try using an XO Sauce if you haven’t done so before, as all you need do is stir some in to the oil before adding the rice. About a teaspoon per cup of cooked rice is a good starting point and, as you will find, just this amount can transform a rather plain staple into something very special.